Sunday, August 29, 2010

Tobsha Learner's "The Witch of Cologne": Book Review

A mass-market epic romance combines philosophical radicalism (Spinoza's secularism), political upheaval (Dutch rebellion against the monarchy), and Catholic suppression (the Inquisition extends its long bony hands towards the German frontier). The later 17th century's full of power, lust, and greed, and Learner intersperses erotic scenes that make her characters seem much more like contemporaries than our ancestors, if their uninhibited tastes were indulged.

Reviewers appeared shocked or unsettled by Learner's ambitious tale. However, as the author of Quiver: a book of erotic tales, one might expect her application of steamier interludes into an often sobering dramatization of how liberal ideals were hunted down by enforcers of Church and State. I sought this out curious about the portrayal of Sephardic Judaism in a modernizing Europe, and this element, especially in the earlier sections, enriches this story. The question of whether she's a witch, interestingly or annoyingly, appears understated: we see evidence of such, but details soon get skimmed over and obscured, perhaps reflecting the way Ruth would wish to distract others from her acquaintance with amulets and spells.

The novel's chapters are named for kabbalistic levels, but as the story goes on, the actual connections between the Zohar and the plot seem to recede and vanish. Later chapters find Ruth, once with her lover, a Catholic canon who turns Protestant preacher, seemingly abandoning her Jewish heritage, if understandably due to clerical and judicial persecutions which never seem to end. This grim tone of oppression permeates the whole novel. Judaism and skepticism both seem thought crimes. I felt the pressure upon freethinkers that must have terrorized so many who dared to consider revolutionary conceptions in such an oppressive climate.

For me, that struggle to articulate humanist ideals proved the most memorable aspect of this narrative. Learner also writes for the stage and screen, and the cinematic perspective of many scenes enlivens her novel. Here is a plague hospital:
"Oblivious to the human agony below, a swallow tends to the mud nest she has wedged precariously between two wooden rafters. Beneath the industrious bird lie row after row of the infirm. Thrown on the dirty straw, the sick are contorted and delirious, like the victims of some massive shipwreck, their eyes already flooding with the resignation of the drowning. Nuns in the brown habit of their order scurry between their patients, removing pails of diseased slops, many wearing cotton masks packed with herbs in a desperate attempt to ward off the extraordinary stench of disease." (284)

She takes time to characterize even walk-on figures, and you glimpse their complexity. Her skill at rendering scenes (as what I've quoted) enlivens her novel. Her research generally works smoothly. Perhaps inevitably some dialogue lags didactically given what we must comprehend about the machinations of Austria, Holland, and the German entities. Towards the end, the narrative energy flags as some main characters weary; passages tell us rather than show us the progress of the pursued, hunted characters. (One aside: I don't think Kaddish for the dead would have been recited in "perfect Hebrew"; it's traditionally in a literary Aramaic.) Given our unfamiliarity with 17th-century history, there's a few notes appended, a list of characters (many taken from real life) with annotations, and a helpful glossary.

Learner's learning's generally blended well, but this may be a daunting read for the squeamish, the prim, or the easily distracted reader. It takes about a third of the way into the plot for the key players to square off, but after that, the pace steadies. The conclusion did not wrap up the way I thought, while the fate of one foe and the general denouement seemed too hasty after so long a story. I suspected a sequel either was altered and edited into this novel, or that the character triumphant at the conclusion may earn another tale to come.

So, it's recommended for an adventurous reader. The lively couplings and gruesome tortures jibe with Learner's wish to make us feel the fleshly fates of her characters, as moments of grace and depth enter nearly every figure she introduces. She's nimble at telegraphing traits to help us identify with these distant people and their thoughts and fears. Our protagonist seems by the end overwhelmed by it all, and we may be too, but that's the force of the encounter between frail humans and ideological forces that try to crush, rather than liberate, everyday folks who dare question what seems to have always been true. (Posted to Amazon US 6-13-10)

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